Archive for June, 2009

Transformers, The Hangover & Red Cliff

Posted in Film on June 16, 2009 by alexlarman

transformersThe three films described above might all seem to be extremely disparate – a big-budget special effects blockbuster, a raunchy adult-orientated comedy and a Chinese historical epic – but they all have one key thing in common, which is that they all do exactly what they say on the tin. I despised Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen, and can’t actually be bothered to write anything much about it. It’s a depressing, empty experience, stuffed to the gills with no doubt costly special effects, but bitterly devoid of characterisation, plot, interest or charm. Michael Bay, a director who I used to have more time for than other critics, directs as if seeing how many references to his conspicuously unmemorable oeuvre he can make (I counted Bad Boys 2, Armageddon and Pearl Harbour) and how many new robots he can introduce into the mix. This becomes more understandable when you realise that he takes a cut of the profits from each one sold (no, really). Shia LaBeouf is as bland as ever, Megan Fox objectified, and only John Turturro appears to be having any fun as a CIA agent-turned-butcher’s assistant. It’s unmemorable, noisy and bland.

2009_the_hangover_001The Hangover is much more fun, even if the critical raves that suggest that this is the funniest film of the year seem somewhat wide of the mark. (That’d be In The Loop so far, though I have high hopes for Bruno.) From Todd Phillips, who directed Old School and Road Trip, this mines a similar vein of ribald humour that is aimed somewhere between the really rather clever and the knowingly moronic. The central plot device – three friends, recovering from a catastrophic, drug and drink-induced hangover, attempt to find the groom for his impending wedding – is amusing, and some of the more surreal tangents (including Mike Tyson and a tiger) are fun. But that aren’t really that many surprises and the journey to the ending is predictable. Bradley Cooper, as the lead, coasts through the film with an arrogant charm, perhaps knowing that the blockbusters will now come flooding in, but it’s Zach Galifianakis who steals the show as the bride’s brother, a man of dubious social skills and probably illegal enthusiasms, together with remarkably little brain.

redcliffI was looking forward to Red Cliff a great deal as it represents the grand return of John Woo, a director whose earlier work (The Killer, Hard Boiled and Face/Off) represents some of the most kinetic and beautiful action filmmaking ever made, but who struggled in a later incarnation as a Hollywood hack, coming up with boring nonsense such as the Ben Affleck flop Paycheck, which was probably aptly named. This epic recreation of the famous Chinese battle of Red Cliff, when a tiny force was pitted against the much larger army of the corrupt Prime Minister Cao Cao, has already been edited down from the 2-part Chinese version, but still feels its 2 and a half hour length. It also suffers from the fact that its thunder has been somewhat stolen by endless Asian battle-scene epics, from Hero & House Of The Flying Daggers to the more recent Mongol. Yet Woo orchestrates the mayhem with undeniable skill, and there’s amusement to be had from watching his various cinematic tropes (slow motion, doves, billowing clothing, Mexican stand-offs) deployed on such a large scale.

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Neil Hannon & The Duckworth Lewis Method

Posted in Music on June 11, 2009 by alexlarman

duckworth(If you want to read about the debut album from the Duckworth Lewis Method, skip to the fourth paragraph)

Full disclosure: I am a massive Neil Hannon fan, and have been for a very long time. I first got slightly into The Divine Comedy through Father Ted, then slightly more into it by enjoying their absurd techno-cover of Noel Coward’s ‘I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’, and then fully when I heard their Fin De Siecle album. The effect on this particular callow 16-year old was fairly astonishing. The songs were incredibly witty and clever, with lyrics worthy of any of the greats – ‘Generation Sex injects the sperm of worms/ Into the eggs of field mice, so you can look real nice for the boys’ –  and the lavish, heavily orchestrated songs, a kind of cross between the Act 1 finale of Broadway musicals, Scott Walker and film scores. I was hooked. The next day, I went back to the shop and bought every other Divine Comedy album, and realised, to my unalloyed joy, that some of the albums – specifically the peerless, beautiful Promenade, the swaggering Casanova and the fragile but soaring A Short Album About Love – were even better. The Divine Comedy promptly became my favourite band. At a conservative estimate, I’ve seen them dozens of times, at venues ranging from Virgin Megastore basements to the Royal Albert Hall, via theatres, fields and churches.

And yet. And yet. Their 2001 release Regeneration, the first that Hannon & his backing band did for Parlophone, abandoned most of what made them so distinctive and unusual – the lavish orchestration, the wit, the slightly camp formality – and replaced it with songs that were sometimes wonderful and beautiful, such as the sweeping Bad Ambassador, but also verged on the banal, and Nigel Godrich’s production didn’t help matters, inserting bleeps and tweets (pre-Twitter) that seemed designed to make the Divine Comedy sound like Radiohead, an unfortunate comparison. I rather liked 2004’s Absent Friends, which saw Hannon determinedly return to the suits, orchestras and wit, but there was something slightly studied about it, as if he was plotting a return to the apparently effortless pop that he had so successfully developed in the previous years. As for 2006’s Victory For The Comic Muse (the title a reference back to the first, now deleted, album Fanfare For The Comic Muse), it was recorded in a fortnight, and, apart from the mighty first track, To Die A Virgin, felt somewhere between lacklustre and forced. The album sold few copies, and EMI regretfully dropped the Divine Comedy from Parlophone. Thence silence, other than the odd festival appearance and the music for Graham Linehan’s The IT Crowd, until now.

Hannon has now returned with a variety of projects. A new Divine Comedy album is promised for later in the year, and he has composed his first film score. (I had always hoped that this would happen, and that it would be for something grandiose, romantic and astonishing. As it is it’s for a low-budget Irish comedy called Wide Open Spaces, written by Arthur Mathews, co-writer of Father Ted, and starring Ardal O’Hanlon. Hannon played all the instruments himself, and recorded the score in 4 days. Oh well.) But most pressingly, Hannon has formed a partnership with Thomas Walsh, of the Irish band Pugwash, and they have formed a side-project, The Duckworth Lewis Method, to record and release an album of songs about cricket. Neither man appears to be taking the project especially seriously, appearing for the promotional photographs attired in Edwardian finery with tongues firmly in cheek.

The album is credited to both Hannon and Walsh equally. Some of the songs sound almost exactly like The Divine Comedy, others sound so different as to indicate either an entirely new musical direction that Hannon has gone in or that Walsh has been heavily involved. Thus, ‘The Sweet Spot’ bears more than a little resemblance to Belle and Sebastian’s ‘White Collar Boy’, and sounds nothing like Hannon’s work, whereas other songs (most notably the string-soaked ‘The Nightwatchman’ and the jaunty ‘Meeting Mr Miandad’) could have easily come off any of the past half-dozen Divine Comedy albums. The first single, ‘The Age Of The Revolution’, is a cheery piece of Noel Coward-esque pop built around a jolly Twenties-style brass piece, and the harpsichord-based ‘Gentlemen And Players’ has a faintly Kinksian feel to it. My own personal favourite is the fine ‘Jiggery Pokery’, which revolves around Shane Warne bowling out Mike Gatting in the Ashes, and features a Bonzos-esque chorus of men (including Matt Berry, Alexander Armstrong and Phil Jupitus) declaiming ‘Baboon, baboon’ as Hannon’s inimitably witty lyrics declare ‘Robbery! Muggery! Aussie skull-duggery! Out for a buggering duck!’

It’d be wrong to take the album particularly seriously. It’s a light collection of amusing and entertaining songs, with some nice lyrical nods to Hamlet and Voltaire, amongst others, and might be a modest success. Yet I cannot be the only person, for the reasons I suggest earlier, who wishes that Hannon would, to use his own terminology, knock one for six and produce a Divine Comedy album that has the beauty, grandeur and brilliance that it deserves. Early reports about the new one – a mainly piano-based study in restraint – do not bode particularly well. Personally I’d love him to collaborate with Bernard Butler and produce something epic, soaring and grandiose, along the lines of McAlmont and Butler’s Speed, but I should be so lucky, in the words of Kylie. In the meantime, enjoy the Duckworth Lewis Method for what it is, and let’s hope that their summer shows are entertaining.

The Winter’s Tale

Posted in Theatre on June 10, 2009 by alexlarman

winterClassed in that weird sub-genre of Shakespearean plays known as the ‘problem plays’, The Winter’s Tale presents a challenge for any director, mainly because it defies the accepted rule of thumb that a work can start out as comic and end up as tragic because it does precisely the opposite. It’s also possibly best known for the stage direction ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’. However, the first three acts, which spell out the irrational but all-consuming jealousy of Leontes, king of Sicilia, for his pregnant wife Hermione, whom he wrongly suspects of adultery with his boyhood friend Polixenes, are utterly, utterly gripping, particularly in this staging by Sam Mendes, and up there with any sustained piece of theatre that Shakespeare wrote.

While I was watching Simon Russell Beale channel virtually every tragic Shakespearean hero in one role, and Rebecca Hall rise to the occasion with a performance alternately heartbreaking, terrifying and breathtakingly sad, I actually began to wonder why this isn’t seen as one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, and whether this was the finest hour and a half of theatre I’d seen so far this year. Mendes, who has too long been a stranger to British stages, returns in grand style with a confident, articulate and brisk staging, enabling his great collaborator Russell Beale to hit notes of pathos and even black comedy that yet again explain why he’s probably the greatest Shakespearean actor in Britain today. He’s ably supported by Sinead Cusack as Paulina, Hermione’s defender, and, of course, Hall, who is rapidly becoming the most interesting actress of her generation.

The answer to my first question was swiftly answered in the second half, which begins sixteen years later with one of those groanworthy scenes of bucolic joy in the country (or here, Bohemia), where a terribly, terribly hammy Ethan Hawke seems uncertain as to how he should play Autolycus (‘a rogue’) and all the good work of the first half is, if not undone, certainly lessened slightly. Mendes over-indulges the horseplay, singing and foolery, occasionally to amusing effect, but it isn’t until the last act’s great scene of resurrection and (possible) forgiveness that the momentum is fully regained, although the final image is an ambiguous and very contemporary one.

I’m hopefully seeing the other play in this series of plays – The Cherry Orchard – next week and will be intrigued to see if it is up to this standard.

Anything For Her

Posted in Film on June 9, 2009 by alexlarman

anythingThe title might make it sound like some sort of hideous perfume advert (possibly even more so in the original French ‘Pour Elle’), which the casting of the glamorous Diane Kruger does not immediately dispel. However, this tense and eventually very exciting thriller, from debutant director Fred Cavayé, is anything but glossy, as it focuses, in precise, unsparing detail precisely what an ordinary man is eventually prepared to do in order to save his family.

The plot is set in motion easily and quickly. Julien (played by the stern-looking Vincent Lindon) and Lisa (Kruger) are a very much in love couple with a young son whose bliss is rudely interrupted when Lisa is arrested for the murder of her boss (which she is probably innocent of – the film fudges this slightly by offering competing flashbacks but never seriously advances a case for her guilt, which would have introduced undertones lacking from the final product) and is imprisoned for a minimum of 20 years. As Julien realises that Lisa is slowly killing herself by refusing to take her insulin injections, he decides that the only option left to him is to spring her from prison and flee the country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is harder than it seems.

 After a first half which is slightly frustrating in the schematic way that it sets up a series of incidents and characters that will then pay off spectacularly later, Cavayé rackets up the tension to an almost unbearable extent from the halfway point onwards, as Julien’s involvement in the Parisian underworld leads to a gradual escalation of violence and his own murky descent into criminality. When the final attempt to spring Lisa kicks into motion – one badly handicapped by the fact that the police are now fully aware of his scheme and doing anything they can to stop him – the thrills and edge-of-seat excitement are really quite impressive, building to a finale which is somewhat implausible but immensely satisfying at the same time.

Kruger is beautiful but tormented in a slightly peripheral role and Lindon is perhaps more convincing as a man of action than a mild-mannered schoolteacher. I very much liked Olivier Marchal in a small but pivotal role as Julien’s proud, hurt father, who eventually realises what his son is up to and has to make a choice as to what his actions are. It reminded me slightly of the great finale of The 25th Hour, as Brian Cox explains to Ed Norton precisely how his life would change if he skipped bail and went on the run forever, although that ending had an ambiguity which is only fleetingly present here. Nevertheless, this is really enjoyable stuff, and the inevitable Hollywood remake from Paul ‘Crash’ Haggis seems doomed in comparison.

Accident

Posted in Film on June 8, 2009 by alexlarman

accidentThe BFI currently has a series of Joseph Losey films, until the end of next month. Losey was an interesting case. Arguably he never made a true masterpiece, but made a lot of good films such as his Harold Pinter collaborations The Servant, The Go-Between and Accident, which is being shown in an extended run at their Southbank cinema at the moment. Adapted from a novel by Nicholas Mosley (who cameos briefly, along with Pinter himself), it’s very much a product of the swinging sixties in terms of its modish score (by John Dankworth), elliptical editing, fashion design and appearances of glamorous Euro-totty.

The plot concerns the powerplay between a couple of Oxford dons, Dirk Bogarde’s arch, diffident Stephen and his apparently worldlier colleague Charley (Stanley Baker), as both become sexually obsessed with a young student, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), who in turn is engaged to the young aristocrat William (Michael York). As the title suggests, the film begins with the revelation of a horrific car crash near Stephen’s house, and then goes on to trace what precisely led to the occurrence.

Although it’s set within Oxford academia, and there are numerous shots of various beautiful colleges looking iconic, Pinter and Losey are less interested in making this a Bridesheadian (or even Morsean) travelogue than they are in making a kind of caustic black comedy. Bogarde and Baker both give very funny performances – if ‘funny’ is the right word for subtly nuanced examinations of rather pathetic men trying and failing to cope with the onset of middle age – and there are typical Pinteresque scenes of strange, inexplicable menace, comedy of miscommunication (such as a scene in which Bogarde goes to be interviewed for a television presenting role by Pinter himself, to be met with incomprehension) and homoeroticism, most notably when Bogarde is invited to York’s stately home for a party, only to find himself in the midst of an unusually violent improvised game.

 I suppose that one could criticise the film for lacking much of a point – and by the same token some of it does feel exceptionally Pinter-by-numbers. But there are some clever directorial tricks (such as an adulterous assignation that Bogarde undertakes and where the dialogue is entirely heard in voiceover) and some of it really is most amusing, such as a scene in a senior common room where the dons seem to be engaging in a tacit competition to come out with the most pompous banalities. Sassard can’t act, but looks pretty, and there are some brilliant one-liners and moments of power. And Bogarde and Baker work so well together that it makes one regret the latter’s early death and the fact that the former’s career increasingly disappeared amidst Euro-nonsense and silly cameos. Incidentally, Bogarde also played another Oxford don in the same year (1967) in Sebastian; perhaps he was thought to be rather convincing.

Arcadia

Posted in Theatre on June 5, 2009 by alexlarman

arcadiaTom Stoppard’s play was first staged at the National in 1993 and, upon its initial staging, was acclaimed both as a masterpiece of modern theatre and Stoppard’s crowning achievement as a dramatist, both judgements that posterity has confirmed. In the same way that Woody Allen’s ‘early, funny’ films gave way to the brilliance and tragicomic sophistication of such works as Annie Hall and Manhattan, so Arcadia proved that Stoppard could yoke his intellectual gamesmanship so brilliantly demonstrated in the likes of Travesties and Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead with an entirely fresh concentration on human feeling and frailty. Now, in its first major revival, David Leveaux’s fresh, nuanced and brilliantly acted production reconfirms Arcadia’s position as one of the greatest plays of the past half-century.

The plot itself is as serpentine and complex as one of the mazes that might well have adorned Sidley Park, the house where the action takes place in two entirely different time frames. In the early nineteenth century, the young tutor Septimus Hodge has to deal with his infatuation for a number of women, including his employer Lady Croom and his young charge Thomasina, whose preternatural brilliance seems about to confirm that she is on the verge of a major scientific discovery. This is all complicated by the roistering presence of Lord Byron in the house, as well as the ongoing rivalry between Septimus and a minor poet, Ezra Chater. In the present day, also at Sidley Park, academics Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale find themselves investigating what exactly occurred two hundred years before, and seeing whether the best-laid plans of the universe always go to pot when romantic feelings come into the equation.

What makes Leveaux’s production so fine and so compelling is the way in which he treats the play as an ensemble piece, allowing each of his fine cast to shine. Thus we have Dan Stevens channelling a young Hugh Grant as Septimus, simultaneously priapic and baffled by his proximity to brilliance; a hilarious Neil Pearson as the arrogant, pompous and yet oddly likeable ‘media don’ Bernard Nightingale; a tart Samantha Bond as Hannah, someone who has been round the block one too many times but still has traces of a heart under her protective armour; and, in an in-joke that pays off beautifully, Stoppard’s son Ed as the questing son of the house Valentine, dismissed by Bernard, in one of the best jokes, as ‘Brideshead Regurgitated’.

Oh yes, the jokes. If this was played straight, it might make for a very demanding evening indeed (and I must confess that in the first act’s lengthy scene where Valentine explores thermodynamics and chaos theory to Hannah, I was lost to a large extent). Thankfully Stoppard serves up a near-endless procession of excellent witticisms, ranging from Wildean one-liners to moments of near farce, and such engaging minor characters as George Potts’ easily flattered Chater, Nancy Carroll’s haughty, almost Lady Bracknellian Lady Croom and Sam Cox’s disdainful butler all provide priceless comic relief.

Yet for all the laughs and jokes, this is, at heart, a very moving play indeed. In the justly famous final scene, in which Septimus and his young charge Thomasina begin waltzing together while acknowledging their mutual attraction, counterpointed by Hannah and the mute Gus doing the same at the present day, the evening achieves a transcendent quality where tragedy and fate mesh and where, in Arthur Miller’s words, ‘the mobile concurrency of past and present’ come together to make something beautiful and true. This fine staging of a masterpiece will be acclaimed to the skies, and rightly so; run, don’t walk, to get tickets.

Drag Me To Hell (and others)

Posted in Film on June 1, 2009 by alexlarman

hellAn eventful weekend, and not altogether to do with culture either. Anyway, I saw and rather enjoyed Drag Me To Hell, which is a return to some sort of form from Sam Raimi, although this neglects the elegant wit and excitement of the rather superb Spider-Man 2. (The first is charming but sketchy, the third confusing and confused). Anyway, the utterly perfunctory plot has the rather lovely Alison Lohmann (a late replacement for Ellen ‘Juno’ Page) as the young loan officer Christine Brown who, after refusing to give an old crone (played, gamely, by the superbly named Lorna Raver) an extension on her mortgage, ends up being cursed by the crone, and is told that her soul will soon be carried off to home by a satanic beast known as ‘the Lamia’. Gruesomeness promptly begins.

It’s not new ground for Raimi, reminding the audience very strongly (intentionally) of his Evil Dead trilogy, right down to the kinetic camerawork, the laugh-out-loud absurdity of much of the violence and gore (including possessed goats and handkerchiefs, and the off-screen sacrifice of a kitten) and the way in which Lohmann has indignity after indignity heaped upon her. The comic elements work far better than the horrific ones, which occasionally verge on the wearying, and after a slow and knowingly drab opening it picks up pace after a set-to in an underground car park. It’s an astonishingly loud film, apart from anything else, even by the standards of the modern multiplex. It seems to have been hailed as the second coming of cinema in some quarters, which I’m not convinced by, but for some authentic sick laughs you could do a lot worse. It’s also amusing to see all the nods that Raimi makes towards the quite brilliant British horror film Night Of The Demon, itself based on the MR James short story Casting The Runes, a much neglected piece of cinema.

I also saw 12 Rounds, which is a very stupid film, but deserves a sort of reluctant applause for its meat-headed desire to make the kind of picture that would have done extremely well in the mid-1990s. Starring ‘American actor, hip hop musician and wrestler’ John Cena as a tough cop who gets pulled into a twisted game of revenge by deranged arms dealer-cum-psychopath-cum-dandy Aiden Gillen, it suffers from all the usual failings of the genre, such as a script of surpassing banality, action scenes that are equalled in improbability by their derivative nature and a lead ‘actor’ who really can’t emote, act or do anything other than adopt a constipated expression, occasionally relieved by angry grunts of rage. As is de rigeur, the baddie steals the show, although not quite to the gleeful, glorious extent that some actors were allowed to do so back in the day. One thinks fondly of the glory days of Rickman, Hopper, Irons et al, rather than the CGI monsters today’s heroes normally face.

Finally, while flicking through the channels on Saturday night, I caught a glimpse of a very odd 90s film called A Man Of No Importance, starring Albert Finney in full-on Oirish mode as a gay bus conductor obsessed with staging Wilde’s Salome. From what I saw, it resembled nothing so much as a pretentious remake of On The Buses, complete with Patrick Malahide as the twitching bus inspector, and Tara Fitzgerald as the obligatory bit of crumpet.